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Infinity Journal: Can Grand Strategy be Mastered?

Tuesday, July 25th, 2017

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

The new edition of Infinity Journal is out and they have a most interesting article by Dr. Lukas Milevski, a promising young scholar best known for his recent book The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought.

Can Grand Strategy be Mastered?

….The first conceptualization of grand strategy, broadening the concept to include all instruments of national power and not simply the military, may arguably be quite useful. Policy-makers and strategists all should understand how military power fits in with non-military power, and vice versa, to achieve desired effects. They must understand the assumptions which implicitly underpin each form of power and how they integrate and contradict among themselves. As Lawrence Freedman argued in 1992, “[t]he view that strategy is bound up with the role of force in international life must be qualified, because if force is but one form of power then strategy must address the relationship between this form and others, including authority.”[ix]

The use of non-military power against an adversary in war is clearly not simple diplomacy, but also is not encompassed within classical definitions of strategy. Grand strategy may or may not be an appropriate term for it; in recent decades the British have labeled it the comprehensive approach. Yet, given how many authors have paid lip service to the variety of forms of power inherent in this interpretation of grand strategy, the amount of attention actually dedicated to the non-military forms of power has been startlingly low. As Everett Carl Dolman suggested in a somewhat blasé manner, “[a] worthy grand strategist will consider all pertinent means individually and in concert to achieve the continuing health and advantage of the state.”[x] Yet one may reasonably ask, ‘but how?’ To make connections among categories and among distinct fields and disciplines is one of the primary purposes of theory, yet this has simply not been done in the grand strategic literature even when this task is implicit and inherent in the definition of the concept itself.[xi] Furthermore, without the achievement of this difficult scholarly work, grand strategic theory which adheres to this form of the concept will never fulfill Clausewitz’s appreciation of theory.

….In principle, grand strategy, conceived along the lines of incorporating multiple instruments beyond the military, can indeed be mastered. However, there is no theory yet which may guide those who desire to master grand strategy in this manner. Practice in the world of action may, of course, still take place without theory—or at least academic theory. Yet without proper guidance, chaos among the various military and non-military instruments is inevitable. They will not work properly together; they may even achieve contradictory effects; and so forth. The comprehensive approach, as practiced in Afghanistan and Iraq, has not been particularly successful.
The second conceptualization of grand strategy, as being placed above policy in a hierarchy of ideas and duties, along with the subsidiary characteristic of enduring over lengthy periods of time, is less transferable to the world of action. Each aspect of this second understanding of grand strategy contributes individually to limiting the transferability of the concept.

Read the whole thing here.

Milevski is a grand strategy skeptic and as such he raises fair questions in his article regarding grand strategy as an actionable thing that some enterprising official, politician or military officer could master. Though he does not raise it explicitly, Milevski’s argument reflects a longstanding debate on whether grand strategy is even a thing one can do or is merely a retrospective historical explanation. Aiding Milevski is that while there has been much learned commentary on grand strategy by eminent scholars or practitioners like Kennan and Kissinger, conceptually it is a muddle with competing definitions and lacking a coherent accepted theory. Much like obscenity, we seem to know grand strategy when we see it (Containment! Bismarck!) but can’t really explain why it happened here and not there.

The two competing definitions Milevski raises complement one another but they are not the same. The first is what is sometimes in America called a whole-of-government approach to conflict and Milevski admits this version of grand strategy is one that could potentially be mastered, albeit there is no pathway to do so. The reason for this is that is that grand strategy requires a fairly robust centralization of political power to be realized. To do grand strategy, it helps if you are Otto von Bismarck, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, Pericles, Peter the Great or some similar figure. Middle level bureaucrats in democratic polities might conceive or suggest grand strategies but unless they convincingly sell their idea to the ruling elite and then the elite to the public (Dean Acheson, for example, “scaring the hell out of the country”) it won’t become actionable policies, diplomatic agreements or military operations. This is possible but rarely happens without an existential strategic threat or at least the perception of a serious one.

Milevski is less enchanted, as are Clausewitzians generally, with the second version of grand strategy that posits a great idea or theme floating above policy, guiding it over very long periods of time such as decades or centuries. Objectively, it is hard to come up with a rationale why this could not be happening more often because it doesn’t though we can point to examples where nations or empires have followed a principle consistently in peace or war for a very long period of time; for example, Britain seeking to prevent any power from dominating continental Europe or China’s tributary system for managing dangerous barbarian tribes and neighboring states. Subjectively, Clausewitzians simply don’t like “grand strategy” violating the hierarchy Clausewitz set forth to explain the relationship between politics/politik, policy and strategy in war. Milevski spends time on this objection specifically.

I’m less troubled by the contradiction than Dr. Milevski, though it’s worth considering that in theory the two different versions of grand strategy could be different phenomena instead of competing definitions of one. Much of the first version of grand strategy could also be termed “statecraft” and the second is something like John Boyd’s theme of vitality and growth or at a minimum, an aspirational security paradigm. It’s more of a vision or an opportunistic operating principle than a well honed strategy  or clearly defined end-state. It is open-ended to permit maximum political flexibility and accommodate many, at times competing, policies. The second version of grand strategy is not at all strategy in the sense applied to a theater of combat for concrete objectives; it is more political, more gestalt.

New Issue of Infinity Journal!

Tuesday, October 25th, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Infinity Journal

Our friends at Infinity Journal have the latest edition out today. For newer readers, Infinity is a peer review e-zine on strategy that has published some of the more eminent figures in strategic studies, military history and security studies, new rising young scholars, an international set of active duty and retired military officers and serious students of war. The current issue boasts such topics as Clausewitzian theory, preventive war, the limits of air power and Chinese strategic thinking ( Registration is required but is always free).

I would however like to draw your attention specifically to their featured exclusive:

Does the U.S.’s War on the Islamic State Make Sense?

by Ron Tira

….The regional competition is multilateral[vii], with quite a large number of participants: global powers, regional powers and sub-state actors. Of them, the most competent challenges to the U.S. and its traditional regional allies come from Iran, its sub-state Shiite proxies and from Russia.

Iran is a serious competitor that poses the most severe threat to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf principalities and Israel. Iran possesses nuclear capabilities and ambitions, a robust ballistic missile apparatus, and long, subversive tentacles. Its regional footprint is also growing, from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, to Gaza, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces. Hezbollah is armed with more high-trajectory weapons than most NATO allies – combined, with high-impact shore-to-sea/shore missiles, cruise missiles, UAVs and cutting-edge surface-to-air missiles. Hezbollah is no longer a solely-Lebanese actor, and its footprint can be found throughout the Shiite-Sunni frontline. Iran and Hezbollah are ambitious, aggressive and skillful in orchestrating ends, ways and means. In contrast, IS’s objectives are unattainable and it is unable to orchestrate ends, ways and means[viii]. Hence, there is no comparison between the risk posed to America’s traditional regional allies by Iran and Hezbollah and the one posed by IS’s proverbial Toyota hordes.

Russia is pursuing an aggressive Middle Eastern policy[ix], aimed at gaining regional ground at the expense of the U.S. as well as accruing chips for its global game. There is no comparison between the risks posed to American interests by Russia’s new assertive posture – running in an arch from the Baltics, through Crimea, the eastern Mediterranean and Syria’s Tartus harbor – and the risks posed by IS’s street fighting in Syria’s battered Sunni heartland.

In fact, IS #1 and other extreme Sunni Jihadist organizations are a primary balancer of Iran and its proxies. IS and its ilk stand between Iran and its hegemony bid in the Sunni parts of Iraq. They also stand between Iran and Russia and their ambitions in Syria. IS pins Iran and Hezbollah down to the quicksand, and increases their expenditure in blood and treasure. IS both attrits Iran and Hezbollah as well as keeps them busy from pursuing other interests, with potentially graver consequences.

Furthermore, the fact that the U.S. has surprisingly prioritized the fight against IS ahead of containing the Russians[x], resulted in the need or at least desire to collaborate with the Russians against IS. It is this order of priorities set voluntarily by the U.S. that made Russia so artificially important, and unnecessarily given the Kremlin powerful global cards….

Read the rest here.

NEW! Infinity Journal Special Edition

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Our friends at Infinity Journal have released a new special edition, International Relations in Professional Military Education, which is excellent and covers the topic from West Point to Sandhurst to the Scandinavian-Baltic range of NATO states. The authors are thorough in explaining building PME curriculum to inculcate strategic thinking and the role played by incorporating and teaching IR theories.

A few samples:

Who Are We Teaching – Future Second Lieutenants or Strategic Leaders? Education for Strategic Thinking and ActionScott A. Silverstone & Renee Ramsey 

….For some, the notion of strategic thinking and action at junior officer levels is a controversial claim. The word “strategy” is often treated as though it begins and ends at the highest levels of policy making. The president, supported by senior civilian and military advisors, develops national-level political objectives, the conceptual ways to achieve these objectives, and then mobilizes and deploys the resources necessary for executing the strategy. Approached from this perspective, young Army officers are merely the instruments of strategy. They receive and execute orders that someone much higher in the chain of command has developed with, hopefully, a carefully calculated understanding of how these tactical operations will contribute to national strategic ends. What business does a Platoon Leader, or even a Company Commander at the grade of Captain have in thinking and acting “strategically”? In fact, it is not hard to find Battalion Commanders who bluntly assert that they do not want their junior leaders thinking strategically; they simply want them to execute their operational tasks with skill and determination.

Silverstone and MAJ Ramsey deserve credit for tackling straight on “Big Army’s” increasing aversion to strategy being taught even in places like Leavenworth, much less to the undergraduate cadets they have as students at West Point. Strategy is not a “level” that should wait until an officer gets a slot at a War College, but is a fundamental domain for the military officer, the foundation for which should begin early in their career and not begin just shy of retirement.

IR, or No IR? The Potential Contribution of IR Subjects to Professional Military Education at the Latvian National Defence AcademyToms Rostoks

….IR studies can provide added value to Latvian cadets in several ways. First, IR studies are especially relevant in small countries that are heavily affected by the international environment. This is not to claim that IR studies are not relevant in medium-sized countries and for the great powers. Quite to the contrary. The great powers have the capacity to use military means either on their own, or with allies, and therefore domestic discussions on their role in the international system are inevitable. The great powers have the ability to shape their regional environment and can exert influence beyond their regional setting. The behaviour of small countries, in turn, is shaped by great power politics. For Latvia, IR issues have become an inalienable part of any discussion on its security and development. Latvia’s security depends on Russia’s domestic politics and foreign policy aims, and EU and NATO policies towards Russia. Latvia’s economic development is also seen in terms of relations between Russia and the West. Thus, IR studies can help cadets to make sense of Latvia’s regional and global international environment. IR studies can help cadets to grasp the basic images of international politics such as realism and liberalism and explain differences between Russia’s foreign policy and EU and NATO policies.

Small nations tend to have interesting histories because they must navigate geopolitics with very little margin for error and Latvia is a prime example.  Winning independence originally during the Russian Revolution, Latvia had to contest with German Freikorps and Bolshevik Red Guards only to lose independence entirely in 1940, passing from Stalin’s control to Nazi occupation and back again, regaining independence during the Soviet collapse in 1991. Rostock alludes to the challenges in transitioning from a former Soviet Republic with a Red Army doctrinal military legacy to a NATO state and the ancillary benefits of teaching IR in PME.

Read the rest of Infinity Journal’s Special IR PME Edition here registration required but always free!

Infinity Journal’s New Issue

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]


Our arch-Clausewitzian friends at Infinity Journal have a new issue out, featuring articles by Colin Gray, Antulio Echevarria and Spyridon Plakoudas.  A sample, from Colin Gray:

Strategy and Security

There can be little disagreement with the proposition that security is a basic human need and therefore has to be of fundamental importance to the high business of state. But it can be almost embarrassing to ask seriously what it is. If a simple and straightforward answer to the question about its nature is hard to obtain, one is right to ask sceptical questions in follow-up mode that may reveal a troublesome void in official thinking. In addition to desiring to know just what security is, and therefore also (logically) is not, we would like to know how we buy it; indeed, can we buy it? From whom or what do we buy security? Is there a usable common currency to meet security concerns? And, probably most important of all, how will we know that we have bought it successfully and therefore should judge ourselves to be sufficiently secure?

As scholars we cannot evade the elementary question, ‘how do we study security in order better to understand it’? To be blunt, what do we study with respect to security? You will discover readily enough that this basic question is not answered in the current literature and debate and you may well begin to suspect it is not answerable. This is the quite unremarkable reason why, over many years, I have refused the title of professor of Security Studies, and have resisted as best I could occasional institutional efforts to associate me with a Centre or Institute for Security Studies. The problem is not that the concept of security lacks meaning, but rather that it carries too much meaning that is thoroughly undisciplined. Alas, there is excellent reason for this unhappy condition. What we have in the concept of security is a boundary-free, not merely-‘lite’, idea. And this potent idea is overflowing with meaning to everyone, both individually and collectively. If I want to study security, what does that imply? What either does or might promote insecurity? I suggest that security is a feeling measurable by human and institutional agents on little reliable empirical basis. And even if we can agree on potentially relevant facts, it is very likely that we would disagree on what the verifiable facts mean. This is a reality disturbing to many people; frank recognition that security/insecurity is a feeling and therefore is liable to influence by personality and mood swing chemistry and consideration of circumstances, but scarcely at all reliably by empirical data.

The beginning of wisdom on security is understanding that the concept is so generously inclusive as to be boundary-free. This is both fortunate and unfortunate. It is good news because it is prudent to be inclusive regarding what we should worry about. But it is bad news because the pervasive subjectivity that reigns over and within security debate means in practice that the sponginess of the concept, together with its positive public acceptance, renders it utterly open to abuse by politicians and other would-be opinion influencers. Alas, because security is about everything that does or might worry us, as a consequence it is really about nothing usable with prudence.[i]

Particular geopolitical or other metrics of potential alarm are not hard to invent for any state, but the problem is that they will lack integrity, even when they are developed honestly. Again, what can tell you how secure you really are? Indeed, is security an either/or condition, or is it a matter of more or less? Obviously, indeed unarguably, security is an important, perhaps the most important, concept in statecraft, but it is unmanageable. Can I measure national security and show it in a graph. I may be compelled to admit that at one time, when I was much younger, and therefore more credulous, I used to attempt to do this metric miracle with regard to the strategic nuclear forces of the United States. But, some greater wisdom did come with age. [….]

Read the rest here

In Search of Strategy(s), a Voice, a Narrative because, ‘Gentlemen, We Have Run Out Of Money; Now We Have to Think’

Friday, December 13th, 2013

[by J. Scott Shipman] [Warning: Maritime in flavor]

No matter how far humanity may go in seeking to foster the arts of civilization and the ideals of civic peace, there will come times when acts of war are required in order to defend world order and sustain the peace of civilized peoples. Charles Hill’s, Grand Strategies, Literature, Statecraft, and World Order, page 48

The lift quote in the title is attributed to Winston Churchill, and in this period of uncertainty with sequestration and deep cuts in defense commanding the attention of military leadership, one thing is becoming crystal clear: we have no cogent or explainable military strategy. Sure, we have “concepts” like Air-Sea/Air-Land Battle, A2/AD, and Off-Shore Control, but our most recent unclassified Navy strategy document A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower was written in 2007 may be a bit dated.

This week I attended the U.S. Naval Institute’s annual Defense Forum, Shaping the Maritime Strategy and Navigating the Budget Gap Reality and given the title, there was a lot of talk about funding and in that light/context, strategy was that thing “we’re in the process of doing.” Several people I spoke with expressed concern about “telling the navy’s story,” “why we have a navy,” and one member of Congress encouraged us to build an engaged constituency to put pressure on Congress to knock-off the schizophrenic approach to appropriations, so that a bit of certainty will allow the development of a strategy. Since DoD hasn’t been successfully audited in a long, long time (if ever), I wouldn’t hold out hope for a grass-roots rescue. As Mr. Churchill wisely advises, “now we have to think.”

Strategy Defined

Since strategy is a hot topic, offered here are several definitions ranging from the classic to practitioners and academics, with the goal of framing the elegant simplicity of strategy as a theory, and challenge of defining in reality. As Colin Gray points out in his National Security Dilemmas: “The United States has shown a persisting strategy deficit.” (page 170) Dilemmas, written in 2009 before the budget axe fell in earnest he offers: “One would think that the following definition and explanation must defy even determined efforts of misunderstanding:” (he then quotes Clausewitz)

Strategy is the use of engagement for the purpose of war. The strategist must therefore define an aim for the entire operational side of the war that will be in accordance with its purpose. In other words, he will draft the plan of the war, and the aim will determine the series of actions intended to achieve it: he will, in fact, shape the individual campaigns and, within these, decide the individual engagements.” (On War, page 177)

The definition of strategy from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Joint Publication 1-02:

strategy — A prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater, national, and/or multinational objectives. (JP 3-0)

Other definitions:

J.C. Wylie, RADM, USN, Ret., Military Strategy, page 14

“A plan of action designed in order to achieve some end; a purpose together with a system of measures for its accomplishment” 

Henry E. Eccles, RADM, USN, Ret., Military Concepts and Philosophy page 48:

Strategy is the art of comprehensive direction of power to control situations and areas in order to attain objectives. (emphasis in original)

Bernard Brodie, Sea Power in the Machine Age, page 78

“Tactics may be distinguished from strategy by the criterion proposed by Mahan—the fact of contact. “Tactics” refers to localized hostilities that occur where the adversaries are in contact; “strategy” refers to those basic dispositions in strength which comprise the entire conduct of a war.” 

General André Beaufre, Introduction á la stratégie, 1963, page 16. (note: I don’t read/speak French, I found the quote in Edward Luttwak’s Strategy, The Logic of War and Peace)

“…the art of the dialectics of wills that use force to resolve their conflict.” 

Paul Van Riper, LtGen, USMC, Ret, Infinity Journal, Volume 2, Issue 3, Summer 2012

“…strategy is specifically about linking military actions to a nation’s policy goals, and ensuring the selected military ways and means achieve the policy ends in the manner that leaders intend.”

From John Boyd’s Strategic Game of ?And?

What is strategy?

A mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focusing our efforts as a basis for realizing some aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world of many bewildering events and many contending interests.

What is the aim or purpose of strategy?

To improve our ability to shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances, so that we (as individuals or as groups or as a culture or as a nation?state) can survive on our own terms. (emphasis added)

Our own Lynn Rees

Politics is the division of strength. Strategy, its tool, squares drive, reach, and grip while striving for a certain division of strength.

Drive falls between too weak and too strong. Reach falls between too short and too far. Grip falls between too loose and too tight.

How strategy squares the three is open ended and ongoing. Outside friction, deliberate or not, always conspires with inside friction, intentional or not, to keep things interesting for strategy.

Drive is the certainty you want. Reach is the certainty you try. Grip is the certainty you get. Grip can be a little sway over certain minds. It can be big hurt carved in flesh and thing. Amid uncertainty, strategy strives for certain grip. The varying gulf between certain want, uncertain try, and not certain getting is the father of strategy.


Paradoxically, complexity is easy to design.  Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge, page 25

All of these definitions have merit, and most coalesce around: power, conflicting wills, violence, and control. Lynn recently had a post on “Grip” where he offers a guide to physically grasp strategy (I do admire his imagery). Admiral Eccles also has a similar and complementary list:

A strategic concept is best expressed in explicit statements of

What to control,

What is the purpose of this control,

What is the nature of the control,

What degree of control is necessary,

When the control is to be initiated,

How long the control is to be maintained,

What general method or scheme of control is to be used. (page 48)

Both of these lists are unambiguous. (One of the biggest complaints about Air-Sea Battle and A2/AD is the ambiguity. Sam Tangredi wrote a book on the latter which I’ll review soon.) Bernard Brodie in A Layman’s Guide to Naval Strategy, page 14-15 (emphasis added), reminds us:

There is no need for a complicated terminology. However, to say that the basic principles of war are easy to understand is not to say that it is easy to comprehend the finer points, or what is more important, to determine upon a wise plan of strategy and then carry it out. The great commander must of course have a profound insight into all the ramifications of strategic principle, but that is only the first requirement of military leadership. He must thoroughly understand tactics, which with modern arms is bound to be exceedingly complex and require long training and experience. He must know how to solve problems of supply or “logistics,” he must know human nature, and he must have certain qualities of character and personality which transcend mere knowledge. He must be able to stick to his course despite a thousand distractions and yet be sufficiently elastic to recognize when a change in circumstances demands a change in plan. He must above all be able to make adjustments to the inevitable shocks and surprises of war.

Unfortunately, the very preoccupation of commanders with specific and inevitably complex problems sometimes tends to make them impatient with the age old verities. Long-tested doctrines which are utterly simple are rejected in part because of their very simplicity, and in part too because of the dogma of innovation so prevalent in our age. The French High Command in the summer of 1940 found out too late that the side which carries the ball makes the touchdowns, and that all the maxims of great military leaders of the past relative to the merits of initiative had not been outmoded by modern arms. We live in an age when basic theories of naval warfare are being rejected out of hand by responsible officials on the wholly unwarranted assumption that they do not fit modern conditions. One can say about theory what Mahan said about materiel: “It is possible to be too quick in discarding as well as too slow in adopting.”

There’s a lot to digest in those two paragraphs, but one take away is that whatever the Navy presents as a strategy should be easy to understand and explain. The strategy should also explain how it plans to maintain control or “command the seas.” And finally, as Wylie reminds the planner:

Wylie’s assumptions in a General Theory of War:

Despite whatever effort to prevent it, there will be war

The aim of war is some measure of control over the enemy

We cannot predict with certainty the pattern of the war for which we prepare ourselves

The ultimate determinate in war is the man on the scene with a gun

As we build our strategies and plans, these decidedly old-fashioned and many cases very simple guides can help us get it right.

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